THE SEAT OF A CONTENTED LIFE

Posted in Well-being on February 7th, 2014 by Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.

People often come to therapy and ask about “the secret of a happy life,” wondering what they do wrong because they experience unhappiness. This question reflects a common misconception about what we can expect of our lives and ourselves; it deservers some discussion.

To begin with, we cannot expect to feel cheery all of the time. Despite this apparently obvious truth, our culture constantly preaches that life can be forever happy, if only we find the right mix of activities, people, possessions, and pills. In truth, the moments of our lives are filled with many emotions, with pain, sadness, joy, excitement, surprise, shame, anger, disappointment, and so much more. A life forever filled with happiness proves to be a myth and would probably seem quite boring. Nevertheless, we do encounter individuals who are at peace with themselves and their universe. These people have achieved a sense of personal serenity that all of us have the capacity to realize.

One way to visualize a contented life might be to think of it as a stool with three legs: generosity, gratitude, and acceptance. You may then consider the seat of this stool as hope. By hope, I mean the belief that good comes from living, and that the apparent difficulties we endure can deepen us in ways not imagined while in the midst of experiencing them.

So, allow me to discuss each of these concepts in more detail.

Generosity, simply put, entails the giving of one’s self in some manner. The most powerful forms of generosity are personal, not financial. I recall many years ago, when I worked as a juvenile probation officer in West Philadelphia, the gift of a glass of orange juice. I supervised an adolescent boy being raised by his grandmother in a high-rise project building. This woman had a limited income, stretched even more by the needs of a growing teenager. One September afternoon, I went to their apartment for a home visit. The temperature hung over ninety degrees all day, and I had been making visits on foot for many hours by the time I reached their apartment. After speaking to the young man, I returned to the grandmother who, smiling, handed me a glass of cold orange juice. I drank it right down and handed the glass back to her, asking for more without words. The woman smiled, poured another glass, and handed it to me. Over forty years later, I remember the woman’s smile and appreciate her simple gift. Her face suggested that she felt good about the kindness as well.

The second principle, gratitude, allows us to notice and enjoy the blessings of our lives. How often do we pass over the beauty we come across every day, focused instead on whatever worry consumes us at the moment or longing for an elusive desire? The baseball player, Lou Gehrig, facing the loss of his career, his independence, and ultimately his life, stood before a crowd in Yankee Stadium in 1939 and declared himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He tapped into that well of peace that grows in everyone, nurturing a sense of appreciation for family, friends, and the opportunities he had enjoyed. While dealing with a life-ending disease, he could notice and appreciate life’s gifts.

The development of gratitude proves to be one of the most powerful and, for many, the most difficult of virtues. Nonetheless, its practice creates a sense of contentment few other personal qualities can equal.

If we look to Mr. Gehrig once again, we see an example of the third leg of our stool, that is, acceptance. Rather than struggle against reality, he acknowledged the circumstances with which he found himself and moved with them. This did not mean he looked forward to his inevitable death (I am certain he would have enjoyed playing baseball for many more years). It did mean that he avoided defining himself and his life by that one reality, his illness. I once heard an oncologist, who when asked if had ever witnessed a miraculous healing in his career, reply that he had not observed any miracles, but that he had known patients who gave up the struggle against the idea of having cancer. He commented that then their bodies began channeling the this energy into healing, with good outcomes as a consequence. When we “fight” against a reality in our life, in truth we fight against ourselves, but there is enormous power in acceptance.

I do not mean to imply that we must avoid striving to change and grow. Confronting personal traits that we recognize as self-defeating, seeking to grow and deepen as a person, or in standing up for our beliefs can be transformative. Nor I do propose that the sorrows and disappointments of living do not hurt. I do mean that when we acknowledge a personal trial, we can embrace it and give it meaning. This ability uniquely helps us to grow in new directions that would not have been obvious prior to encountering the distress. How we frame the anxieties encountered in living goes a long way towards how we eventually experience ourselves, the people we encounter in our lives, and the universe we inhabit.

In the end, we discover the freedom to live as ourselves. Thus we reach a place of hope, that seat of wisdom that gives life its meaning. All the great religions and philosophies of the world have come to this conclusion. Science, now, has discovered it as well.

One method of beginning the practices of gratitude, generosity, and acceptance is to develop a custom of centering yourself. To this end, people perform meditation, learn yoga, or read about people who have exhibited qualities they seek to develop in themselves. Becoming centered permits you to perceive the world instead of reacting to it. After a time, you might amaze yourself at how differently your life appears and start to reconsider your priorities and values. Then you begin to touch satisfaction and peace.

Some contemporary writers in psychology prefer to speak of a state of contentment rather than happiness, and I favor this idea as well. When we attain a state of contentment, when we realize the pointlessness of struggling against the dilemmas of our lives, we achieve a place where it is possible to hope, because we experience life in the moment. This idea may sound fanciful, yet if we look around us, we will find individuals who have achieved such a state. In the end, getting there is a matter of intention and practice.

There are a number of sources, in books and on line, that you might want to seek out if you have a further interest in these ideas. I have referenced Lou Gehrig several times in this discussion. For those interested in exactly what he said on that July 4th, I suggest you go to www.lougehrigspeech.com to read his words in their entirety.

A book authored by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, recounts conversations between the author and Morrie Schwartz, a retired professor who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the same disease that caused Lou Gehrig’s death. Professor Schwartz expressed many of the same thoughts mentioned here.

For those interested in reading about this from a more spiritual perspective, I suggest The Gift of Peace, written by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, a Roman Catholic prelate who authored the work while in the process of dying of cancer. You will find both books easy to read, and they convey, in somewhat different ways, the ideas presented in this discussion.

I invite you, most of all, to initiate the practices of generosity, gratitude, and acceptance as avenues to personal growth and contentment.

Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.

The Importance of Being Useful

Posted in Well-being on August 21st, 2011 by Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.

Many times, people complain that they no longer feel “useful.” Perhaps a father has injured himself on the job and can no longer work regularly. A mother who, because of illness, cannot attend to her children as she would like may feel guilty. Someone might express having no purpose simply because they have retired and no longer think of themselves as “productive.” All of these individuals believe that, if they do not see themselves performing a function, they also have no value or purpose. I thought it might be worthwhile to look at this belief more closely.

By way of examining the idea, I would like to share with you a little something about my cousin, Mike. He was born on Halloween night in 1961 with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. The physicians at that time gave him a life expectation of about two years. When he died thirty-eight years later, he had never held a real job, though he had gone to a sheltered workshop. He had no special skills, though I still possess a hook rug that he made and gave to me. Yet, at his death no one – no one – that knew him did not treasure their relationship with Mike or value him in their life. His “usefulness,” if you could call it that, lay simply in his presence among us. Mike was Mike.

So, what about the rest of us? How could we measure our own utility? Recall the movie in which the character, George Bailey, discovered the condition of the world if had he not been born into it. He found his town a far darker place than he could have imagined. George learned that the sparkle of his laughter, the warmth of his greeting, a supporting gesture, or the joy of a compliment to someone else were among the many characteristics that made him irreplaceable to others.

The idea that we must have productivity or usefulness can be traced to an old myth reaching back into our childhood. This belief or “schema” develops innocently enough from parents, teachers, and others who encourage us to do our share of tasks in whatever group we find ourselves. The concept can increase to such a level of importance in our minds, however, that we come to think of it as a part of our being, as a part of our reality. You can challenge this old schema, though. Think of a dearly loved person and the treasure of their presence in your life. Do you give value to a function they provide, or do you simply love them? Ask yourself, then how you genuinely contribute to their well-being. To answer that question, I offer two sources of information as a start.

First, in his research into the factors of a happy marriage, John Gottman discovered powerful, affirming methods of relating to a spouse or partner. These include sharing admiration and respect for someone; approaching problem-solving in a positive way; encouraging others to talk about their hopes and dreams; trying to understand the other person’s point of view. These strategies, while very helpful in an intimate relationship, can affect anyone we know in a positive way. If these ideas look interesting, you can learn more about them on Dr. Gottman’s website:

www.gottman.com/54756/About-Gottman-Method-Couples-Therapy.

You might also be interested in reading about research by Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, who has extensively studied the factors of authentic happiness. I have been especially impressed with his ideas about seeking a state of contentment. In the context of our discussion here, his work informs us about how to look and experience ourselves differently, seeking to become more aware of who we are rather than the occupation in which we find ourselves or the responsibilities we assume. For more information about Dr. Seligman’s research, go to:

www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.

I think often about comments a man of wisdom shared with me over many years. He remarked that the genuine characteristics of a happy, contented life are acceptance, generosity and gratitude. Notice that two of these traits reflect upon how we interact with people rather than the functions we perform. The third concept goes to accepting ourselves, rather than struggling with who we think we are supposed to be.

So, when we examine the idea of the importance in being useful, we learn that it gets down to discovering ourselves fully and sharing that with the people we meet. Never for a moment doubt how powerful your presence in others’ lives can be! If you choose to inject warmth, laughter, joy, peace, or safety into another person’s day, these traits can become hallmarks of your life and the cornerstone of what you provide to others.

Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.

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Exercise and emotional well-being

Posted in Well-being on May 3rd, 2011 by Dr. Kai Syvertsen

New York City Marathon 2005

Greetings and welcome to our blog!

Everyone has probably heard the incessant chatter from self-help TV personalities or anyone on the Oprah Network about the benefits of daily exercise. While I’m not one to hop on the bandwagon of every trend that’s compelling enough for a soundbite on your nightly news, the advice about exercise has merit. Research is very consistent about the benefits of exercise on mental health. I know a lot of you probably have questions about the link between exercise and mental health so here are some answers.

What are the psychological benefits of exercise? Trust me, they’re numerous! Reading through the research literature, I’ve seen articles indicating a correlation between regular exercise and well-being, stress tolerance, and happiness as you age. The more you exercise, the more your body learns to cope with environmental stressors, so exercise can actually decrease your daily experience of stress.  Exercise has also been used as an effective treatment for both depression and anxiety. Exercise can be as effective as either psychotherapy or medication at decreasing depression!  The more a person exercises, the less likely they are to develop dementia. Symptoms of dementia and even Parkinson’s may decrease with exercise. Exercise helps you stay more in the moment and enjoy the world around you. Self concept, mastery, self-efficacy, self-sufficiency and body image also typically improve as you exercise more frequently.

Based on all the benefits of exercise, why do only 30 percent of Americans exercise daily? The main explanation I’ve heard in my practice is lack of time. When exercise isn’t a priority, you won’t find time for it. I would argue that virtually everyone could find time to exercise if it was a higher priority and not seen as an additional stressor in an already hectic life. Instead of “winding down” at the end of a long sedentary day at work by engaging in a sedentary activity like watching television, you can find an enjoyable activity such as walking, swimming, biking, running, rowing, or dancing to relax. You don’t have to be a slave to the gym, as some might have you believe. Exercise can decrease tension, improve your ability to manage stress and elevate your mood.

The way I see it, you don’t have time NOT to exercise.

How much exercise do I need to reap the benefits both psychologically and physically? I don’t think there’s a magic number, but I’ve seen some estimates. The International Society for Sports Psychology suggested 20 to 30 minutes, three times per week. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recommends 30 minutes a day five days per week for adults and 60 minutes a day for children. Don’t despair, however, one study found that as little as a daily 10 minute brisk walk can lead to improvements in mood. Whatever you do, just try to move more and sit less!

I don’t just preach about the benefits of exercise, I am a avid follower of my own advice. After a sedentary and generally unhealthy period of about two years in college, I gained a significant amount of weight. I was not only overweight, I was unhappy and experiencing more anxiety than ever in my life. I decided to make a change and began exercising daily. My exercise eventually turned to running and I lost over 50 pounds. Since then, I’ve run more than 15 marathons and my mood has never been better. I don’t claim that exercise has been the sole cause of my improved emotional well-being, but I believe it plays a large role.

So hopefully, this information can serve as the impetus to make time for exercise on a regular basis. I speak from my own experience that exercise can have a profound effect on your mind and body!

Kai Syvertsen, PhD

 

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